After getting a taste of Chef Alex Gauthier’s cooking at last year’s StarChefs ICC (read about it here), I was looking forward to our reservation at his nouveau-French restaurant more than any other on our pilgrimage. Happily, it did not disappoint. Gauthier’s cuisine fits in the 21st century – modern and fun, he reinvents classic French flavors by preparing and presenting them outside of the classic French context.
La Grenouillére is both a cutting-edge restaurant and quaint inn, whose rooms orbit the central restaurant space. Like his cuisine, the space occupies a juncture of old and new. The ancient wooden doorways in front are so short that I had to watch my head passing through them, but the restaurant’s starry main room is expansive and dark, with high ceilings. A large steel fireplace dominates the center of the room and pinpoints of light dot the steel-frame above. The ensemble of leather covered chairs and tabletop was an unusual but well-considered touch. The open kitchen is similarly low-lit and sequestered from the main room in a corner closer to the inn’s entrance. Along with the food, the industrial-camp ambience made our meal feel like a stylish, tasty dream; I feared I might wake up at any moment and not remember a thing.
These days, upscale restaurants are practically obligated to provide “snacks” before a tasting menu, and in this regard La Grenouillére is no different from the rest. We enjoyed a tasty batch, which included:
bread and fresh grape
carrot and sea urchin
rice noodle and tarama
endive served in foam
The snacks were followed by the traditional bread course, in this case a selection of three accompanied by butter. We chose a piece of each, the white, the dark, and the baguette. The butter was hard and difficult to spread, but tangy in the way that only good, freshly cultured butter can be tangy. The brown bread, in its crusty molasses splendor, was my favorite, followed by the white. The baguette was surprisingly underwhelming.
Our first proper course was pumpkin and clementine – an unorthodox combination of ingredients became plausible as an exciting splash of orange on the white plate. The pumpkin set a rich, squashy foundation for the palate in its two preparations (one crunchy, one buttery-smooth) upon which shone the bright citrus of the clementine.
Being a sucker for avocado, the second course was one of my favorites of the evening. Avocado and monk fish, with a vinaigrette of monkfish liver and watercress. Separately, the monkfish and avocado were delicious but soft – the watercress could not have performed its role as textural contrast any better. The vinaigrette, while suffused with monkfish liver, pulled the whole dish together with salt and acid leaving my palate pleasantly sated and ready for the next course.
Razor clam with cream of egg white. This course was not marked on the menu, and tasted richly of corn because of a corn powder laid alongside the tender clam. The overall effect was a wonderful interplay between rich flavors and light texture, with perhaps a slight emphasis on the richer components.
It appears watercress is a popular and important ingredient to chefs in Northern Europe, particularly in winter. Crisp, mild, and easy to cultivate indoors, watercress gives personality to any plate that might otherwise fall flat. In our third official plate, this wonderherb foiled fresh sea trout and romanesco, which he prepared as a puree. The Mandelbrot cauliflower married the raw trout with the land in this unusual surf-and-turf, which only benefitted from the watercress garnish.
I have to empty my computer-side drool bucket every minute or so while I dwell on what we ate next. This potato gnocchi, lobster pincer and “seawater” was the pinnacle of our pilgrimage thus far, and would retain that title until some little-known restaurant in Paris called l’Arpege made us reevaluate our rankings.
According to our server, the idea for this dish was to recreate the experience of being a kid in the sea and having the water splashing in your face. If the gnocchi is the pillowy sand beneath your toes, he succeeded. The lobster was perfect and the herb-accompaniment, also from the sea, completed the illusion. So far, Chef Gauthier has been hitting all the right notes, making for a stellar meal.
Coming up next, we were presented with a plate of what looked like green leaves – persil (parsley). The persil was the only obvious element on the plate, though we could make out what looked like a green sheath of pasta underneath.
A deft cut with the fork revealed the surprise inside this verdant ravioli: pure golden yellow egg-yolk. Gauthier’s food is fun, clever and tricky, and it works.
Opinions on this next plate were more divided between us. My father liked the burlap-scented and flavored liquid-filled pouch (served among steaming burlap rope), but I wasn’t particularly crazy about it. If tasting menus are about pushing boundaries through experimentation, then this is a fine experiment. If you care to experience this for yourself: find a barbecue on a hot summer day, locate the sack race and try to eat one.
Chef got back on track with the next dish: lobster and juniper.
We were to eat this dish with our hands, rooting through the pile of smoldering juniper twigs to find the sweet, succulent lobster tail that lay beneath, smoked in its cradle. A fascinating take on surf and turf; the juniper musk lingered pleasantly at the table long after we devoured our prize.
Those of you with knowledge of the French language might know that grenouille means frog. Therefore, you might expect a meal at La Grenouillére would not be complete without some rendition of frog on the menu.
Our variation was grilled frog’s legs, with puree of broccoli and basil. The old cliché really is rooted in fact – frogs’ legs really do remind one of chicken. The grilled legs went well with the broccoli and basil; the herbaceous green flavors nicely counteracted the char-bitter frog.
The main protein was a luxurious but relatively conventional preparation of venison over cream of mustard green with chanterelle mushrooms.
It was delicious, and went well with the flaky, buttery brioche that they served alongside.
It seems Alexandre Gauthier is one of the few chefs in the new guard who still believes in the cheese plate. Being in northern France, arguably the cheese capital of the world, we couldn’t help but take it on.
We pared a selection of twelve cheeses down to just seven, to save room for dessert. It was a stinky assortment that played well with the fresh bread, and cleared our heads for the sweeter side of the meal.
Before any plates arrived, our waitress brought over a large jug with a curious pouring pump on the top. Inside, we discovered, was mead. Though she had us guess, I could tell by the notes of honey that underscored this sweet, boozy beverage.
To go along with it, she served us a spoonful of succulent honeycomb that she cut fresh and sprayed with lemon right at the table.
Dessert: A chocolate and chervil banzai tree. Chervil climbs a trunk of chocolate cookie wafers, bound together by smooth chocolate cream, like ivy. The chocolate is delicate and the French parsley’s is more impressive visually than as a flavor combination. While this dessert doesn’t revolutionize chocolate or its use in pastry, it’s presentation is beautiful and the textural contrast between cookie and cream achieves its intended, luxurious effect.
The next dessert, lemon creme, meringue and marjoram, was as interesting to look at as its predecessor, but it too stuck pastry conventions. I usually dislike lemon pastry, as the lemon component is oftentimes oversweet to compensate for its acid. Although that wasn’t the case here, there was too much meringue to fully appreciate the subtlety of the marjoram (which played a bigger role here than the chervil in the banzai) and the lemon creme. Thus, we left some on the plate and enjoyed it our way.
The Gauthier kitchen saved the best dessert for second-to-last. This plate featured sorrel in two preparations with sugar. In yet another creative expression of the pastry aesthetic, the plates contained leaves and oil before our waitress took an orb for each plate and smashed it next to the leaves, leaving a crater of sugar glass and green sorrel ice cream. The final result was fruity, fresh and more fine-tuned than the previous two efforts.
Our final treat was not on the menu, but spectacular just the same. Beer meringue with cream of beer and macaron served in parsnip. The meringue was rich and savory, almost reminiscent of foie gras; a nice change-up from the too-sweet meringue that accompanied the lemon.
The macaron, on the other hand, was sweet and savory but not as much fun as the meringue.
La Grenouillére lived up to all the hype Alex Gauthier created for it back in September at Starchefs ICC 2012. There were a few slip-ups, but even the lowest lows kept us at the table, eager to see what else Chef would come up with. In a trip filled to bursting with good dining, La Grenouillére holds its own as a destination restaurant outside charming Montreuil-sur-Mer.
All Photos by John M. Sconzo, M.D. For more photos please see the entire Flick’r Photoset.